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How Campbell's questions are shaping Ulster's next generation, on and off field


By Adam McKendry

At the front of a packed meeting room at Newforge Country Club, Kieran Campbell hit pause on a clip from training.

"Anybody know what was good about that?" he asked the large group of Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy and Under-19 players in attendance.

Answers began to flood in - "good movement... good support lines... lots of action" - and Campbell smiled.

Ulster's Academy manager has always put an emphasis on not spoon-feeding the players what they need to become professional rugby stars. They have to earn it, and that means being self-critical.

Players are called out during the team meeting at a behind-the-scenes day with Ulster's Academy. They're asked how they can improve on plays from training in front of their peers - it's nothing personal, it's making them mentally tough.

"What I'm trying to do is get them used to a professional environment, to take away the trepidation of fear," Campbell explained.

"If you can get used to, 'This is making me better and it's helping the group improve', then you're on the right track as a person.

"The other thing is that it's not what I know. That's why we purposely don't put information up on the screen with the clip or I don't fill it in, there'll be a lot of 'Why?'.

"Hopefully by that process, which is a little more time-consuming, they'll begin to understand why they need to run that line as opposed to just run that line effectively."

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Kieran Campbell

Campbell, who is a former Ulster scrum-half himself, knows what it takes to make it at the highest level and now as the head of the Academy for the last three years, he's ensuring as many of the current crop will follow him to the senior squad as possible.

For that, he knows that the boys coming through have to possess that mental fortitude to cope with the stresses of the pro game, and that's what he wants to drill into the players.

The talent is there, they just need to be able to use it in the right way.

Using Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell as examples, Campbell explained: "One thing they had more than anything else was that they were never beaten.

"Their attitude to things, whether they were training or playing, it was that unquantifiable thing of this guy is indomitable, he can never be beaten.

"The big word that we try to use is resilience. If you look at the programme, technically and physically the programmes are good. But where's the next break in the game, where's the next edge?

"I would like to think that what we're trying to do now is developing a level of tactical decision making and on top of that a level of resilience as a cornerstone.

"So this guy is a good decision maker now but, under pressure, he can deliver. And also where that resilience can help too is being dropped, or not quite attaining a target or hitting a small bump in the road.

"So, that's where the cornerstone is: that resilience. I think that we're getting there, but are we there? No. It's a journey, but there are guys, from their performance, you're starting to see that."

Beyond the rugby, however, there's much more to the Academy. The coaches urge players to get an education - which most are doing - and they're pushed to become better people too.

There's been a buzz word around Ulster for the past year: culture. As custodian of the Academy, Campbell sees it as part of his job to drive that culture.

It's something he stresses a lot during the day, and he believes that developing the players under his care into well-rounded individuals is just as important as the sporting aspect.

"When I came into the job I went and got Willie (Anderson) (because) we've always had the desire that, along with anything else, when our boys walk out of here - whether they make it for Ulster or not - they'll be good people," he insisted.

The work Campbell has done in the last three years has been immeasurable. The Englishman has taken the youth system in Ulster from one which was highly criticised to one which provided four graduates to the senior squad for the start of this season.

It will continue as the months progress this season, and over the following years. The tireless work he and his coaching staff do goes on behind the scenes in order to strengthen the senior squad.

And as the former Ulster scrum-half takes the players through their paces on the training paddock, he remains humble.

"This isn't about me, it's not a crusade for Kieran Campbell or Willie or any of the staff," Campbell said. "It's about making sure, whoever steps up, you leave something tangible and Ulster Rugby has years of success from.

"If you're asking how much I or Willie care about it, you'd have to ask the wife! Too much probably at times, because it can become all-consuming.

"I don't like people thinking it's about us. There are no tall poppies, you're here to work and you take your value from what we achieve."

So far, so good.

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